S2E1: Game of Thrones knows how to do a second season premiere. After the long, aching wait to get back into Westeros, the HBO series picks up exactly as it should: with expansion.
Everything is bigger, and even more promising than it was when we left it at the incredible conclusion of Season One. We are introduced to new characters, worlds and themes, but even the returning players seem new. The battling families all feel like they're on the upswing of adventure Robb Stark's war and the Lannisters' undoing are being kindled steadily, with a very palpable feeling of ignition on the way.
"More ravishing than ever, big sister. War agrees with you." - Tyrion Lannister
Cersei Lannister's world is unravelingas if conceiving a child with your twin brother, passing him off as your king husband's son, and then killing (or trying to kill) everyone who knows your secret isn't a failsafe plan. First off, the Small Council informs Cersei that in case you haven't heard winter is coming, which means that shelter and resources are beginning to wear thin in King's Landing. The ever generous Cersei demands that all peasants be denied entry into King's Landing as a result.
Next, Tyrion Lannister pays Cersei and the Council a visit, instructing them that he is officially the King's Hand in the absence of their father, Tywin an agreement that was made in the Season One finale, as a result of Tywin's disappointment in Jaime and Cersei. She is none too thrilled to hear this news, or to appreciate what it means about their father's dissolving trust in her. Having to admit that she has misplaced Aria Stark a good piece of ransom brings further embarrassment to Cersei.
"The mockingbird. You created your own sigil, didn't you?" - Cersei Lannister
"Yes." - Little Finger
"Appropriate for a self-made man with so many songs to sing." - Cersei Lannister
And then to be shown up by Little Finger Season Two does not look to be kind to the Lannister queen. Cersei meets with Petyr Baelish, a.k.a. Little Finger (a nickname he hates, according to his top prostitute) to find out information on Aria's escape. Instead of helping his queen out (no surprise there; Petyr is anything but reverent), he makes insinuations that he knows about the Lannister twins' secret, informing her that "Knowledge is power," hinting unsubtly that the publication of this information will be their undoing. Cersei overcompensates by insulting Petyr's meager upbringing and his unrequited love for Catelyn Stark and by proving that "power is power" by instructing her guards to seize him and cut his throat to make a point. She stops them before they carry out the order, but she is confident that he gets the message. Still, to the viewer, the antic just serves to highlight Cersei's growing desperation.
"I heard a disgusting rumor about Uncle Jaime. And you." - King Joffrey
Worst of all, Cersei's own son is growing insubordinate. The power has gone well beyond King Joffrey's head. At the beginning of the episode, he celebrates his name day by nearly having a drunken man drowned to death with a barrel of wine. Queen Sansa and the king's guard the Hound convince him to employ the drunk as his royal jester in lieu of killing him, but this brief glimmer of mercy is only driven by self-interest (Joffrey learns that it is bad luck to kill a man on your name day). The king's narcissism is only shown to grow on this episode.
For the first time, Cersei sees the danger in what her son is becoming. When he challenges her with the rumors about Jaime being his true father, Cersei responds by slapping her son something that makes him angry enough to threaten her with death if she ever lays a hand on him again. With Jaime still prisoner of Robb Stark, her secret steadily filtering out to everyone she knows, and her own son beginning to turn against her, Cersei is learning that her grip on world power is rapidly loosening.
"This woman will lead him into a war he cannot win." - Ser Davos Seaworth
Of course, if this secret does get out, it will mean the end of Joffrey's reign. The rightful heir to the throne, Stannis Baratheon, finally joins Game of Thrones, and is well-aware of Joffrey's true lineage. However, Stannis isn't taking action with much stealth. He is calling for his people to pledge loyalty to the true king, but refuses to team up with his younger brother Renly (who is declaring himself the rightful king) or with Robb Stark and his army.
His judgment is called into question by his knights when Stannis aligns himself with Melisandre, a zealot of the new gods who thinks that he needs nothing but their powers to win a war. Melisandre manages to kill one of Stannis' men who aims to challenge her influence over him, and to inspire paranoia in another: Davos Seaworth. The latter maintains loyalty and quiet suspicion for now, but we should predict dissention in some form.
"You married a rebel and mothered another." - Robb Stark
Robb Stark is faced with devising strategic negotiations and alliances. He proposes to Alton Lannister, cousin of Cersei and Jaime, an independence of Winterfell and the freedom of his younger sisters in return for the Stark army's appeasement of the royal family's actions. This deal is not expected to carry. Robb's best friend and right-hand man Theon Greyjoy proposes that they request an alliance with his father, but Robb and Catelyn Stark are hesitant. Catelyn insists that the Greyjoy army is not to be trusted, as they once rebelled against King Robert and, by association, Ned Stark. But Robb reminds her that now, the Starks are the rebellion; in spirit, the Starks and the Greyjoys are the same.
The subtext of Robb's argument with Catelyn is one of the most fascinating aspects of the premiere, and a terrific example of why Game of Thrones is much more than a fantasy series. The question posed here is whether loyalty should be applied to men, or to ideas. Philosophically, the Greyjoys who rebelled against King Robert and Ned and the Starks of present are aligned. But as men, they are enemies. Robb, a purveyor of change and progression, is opting for a loyalty to the idea of rebellion. Catelyn is reluctant, all too attached to the memories of the Greyjoys' war against her husband.
"Stars don't fall for men. That comet means one thing, boy: dragons." - Osha
We don't see a lot of Daenerys Targaryen on this episode she and her people wander almost biblically through the torrential territory of the Red Waste, victims of exhaustion and starvation. But as they press on, Daenerys maintains hope, deriving such from the friendships of her knight Jorah Mormont and her bloodrider Rakharo. Oh, and her dragons.
Although they are weak now, the signs say that the dragons will inherit the Earth once again. After Bran who is ruling over Winterfell in the absence of everybody else in his family (Jon Snow is still with the Watch, north of the Wall, taking up with a drunken polygamist who marries his daughters) has another one of his psychic dreams, he has the wildling Osha lead him to a lake that he envisioned in the woods. Above, the clear skies reveal a comet, which Osha predicts is a sign of the dragons' rise.
"Death is so boring. Especially now, with so much excitement in the world." - Tyrion Lannister
To reiterate, the premiere can be marked by the idea of expansion. The focus of the episode is the imminent fall of Cersei Lannister, who is not accustomed to misfortune. Her younger brother Tyrion, the series' most terrific character, comes to King's landing (with his beloved prostitute Shae secretly in tow) to aid his family, but it is unclear in which direction he will steer them, or if his loyalties are truly glued to his siblings they are not exactly a functional family, after all. Robb's war looks to take form soon, and in a big way. And although Daenerys is down now, the comets predict her lineage's uprising. All in all, Season Two looks to be huge, in lots of good ways.
How did you enjoy the season premiere? What do you look forward to on this season of Game of Thrones, and what do you think will happen? Let us know in the comments section, or on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.